The Evolution of Social Meditation

This article is meant to give some introductory background on the evolution of social meditation, including its history & current development.

by Vince Fakhoury Horn

Although the Buddhist tradition contains a vast quantity of examples of interpersonal meditation practice, most don't understand themselves as such. What I mean by that, is that the Buddhist texts I'm familiar with don't have this self-reflexive mental model they employ, whereby they differentiate between individual & social forms of practice. Certainly, there are examples of both kinds of meditation happening in the Buddhist tradition–both of the wandering monk meditating by themselves–the archetypal example is the Buddha himself–and of the communal monastery of monks, gathered together, living closely in a community of practice.

Both poles, from individual-to-social, have always been represented in the Buddhist tradition, but what's new in the wake of the Western Enlightenment is that we have new conceptual & linguistic tools needed to point out this distinction and leverage it further. Many also have the benefit, living in the internet age, of understanding ourselves as being co-constructed by the networks we participate in, rather than being isolated individuals.

One of my earliest exposures to a form of meditation which explicitly understood itself as social, was Gregory Kramer's Insight Dialogue. Here's the original Buddhist Geeks Dialogue I had with Gregory, about Insight Dialogue, recorded in 2007.

A few years later, one of my close teachers, Kenneth Folk, began to go through a creative phase of developing teachings around what he called Social Meditation. He also coined the term Social Noting to describe the techniques that were inspired by the original Mahasi Noting Method, aka "mental noting." The following talk is one of my earliest public takes on the background, structure, benefits, and evolution of Social Meditation, which details the story behind how I learned these techniques from Kenneth, facilitated them, and then eventually began to construct new techniques.

I see much of my work as building on this fundamental idea, put forth by Kenneth Folk, that "we are social in our very bones." Putting it in more provocative terms I'd say that we need to Stop Practicing Anti-Social Meditation and recognize the inherent relationality of life itself!

Social Noting & Social Meditation

When Kenneth Folk began to teach Social Meditation, he did so through teaching the traditional meditation techniques he had learned from the Mahasi Sayadaw lineage of Mynamar, in a new way. In his original article on Social Meditation, Kenneth writes:

"In its simplest form, social meditation is Mahasi Sayadaw-style choiceless vipassana done aloud while taking turns."

In the traditional Mahasi Sayadaw approach to teaching noting meditation the student receives verbal instructions on how to do the technique from the teacher. They are then asked to go off and do the practice on their own for some period of time. At some point, they return to the teacher and share a verbal report of what they've experienced doing the technique. Based on this verbal report, the teacher gives further instructions, to help refine & improve their students technique. This is the basic learning loop that's created in the traditional Mahasi approach.

What Kenneth did, that was pedagogically different, was instead of giving abstract verbal instructions, he invited private students–on Skype–to take turns noting their experience aloud with him. This "ping pong noting," or what I would also refer to as "2 player meditation," enables learning to occur more effectively than in the traditional approach in at least 3 ways:

  1. Demonstrating & Modeling - It enables the teacher/facilitator to demonstrate the technique, rather than merely describing the instructions in 3rd person, objective terms. This inter-personal demonstration serves as a direct modeling of the technique, giving students an immediate 1st-hand sense of what doing the practice looks like from someone who is, ideally, much more experienced with the technique.

  2. Sharing & Feedback - It gives the student an opportunity to share observations and ask questions related to their 1st hand experience of the practice. This model of teaching also enables the teacher/facilitator to offer instant feedback on the student's technique, highlighting what they did well, and offering suggested changes for next time.

  3. Cycling & Iterating - This model enables multiple learning cycles, or iterations, in a single instructional session. I've found that doing a new social meditation practice for as little as 5 minutes is effective in being able to learn. This is due to the peer-pressure function keeping everyone on track with the technique. Enabling multiple learning cycles in a single session speeds up the learning process, by shortening the length of time between each cycle or iteration. It's not just about how much we practice, but about how rapidly we can accelerate the learning process.

Opening Up The Noticing Spectrum

Most modern meditation methods, including the Mahasi Noting Technique, are done silently. This pedagogical shift, to noting aloud, really opened up the spectrum, to 2 new possibilities, both of which Kenneth encouraged people to try. One is noting out loud by yourself, and the other is noting aloud with others–i.e. social noting.

Taking this into account we could say that social noting describes both:

1) The translation of traditional meditation techniques from the Mahasi Sayadaw lineage to an out-loud social practice context–See: Freestyle Noting.

& also

2) The development of new forms of out-loud noting-style practices–ex. Binary Noting, Single Parameter Noting, Essence Noting, There is Noting, Noting is Like This, & Just Noting, Just Sitting.

I would propose that Social Noting can best be understood as an approach to Social Meditation, or as a family of social meditation techniques. You can tell that a social meditation technique is part of the noting family because you'll see the term "Noting" used somewhere in the name of the technique (ex. "Noting is Like This", or "Just Noting, Just Sitting"). Likewise, you'll see a "?" used in the name of techniques that fall into the Social Inquiry family of social meditation techniques.